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Cruise ships take bets on all games

January 25, 1997

DANIA, Fla. (AP) _ For fans eager to wager on the Super Bowl, their cruise ship has come in.

The Vegas Express departs two hours before kickoff Sunday bound for international waters, where gambling is legal.

Will the Green Bay Packers cruise to victory, or will they get blown out of the water by the New England Patriots? Passengers can bet their hunch once the Vegas Express is three miles offshore.

``We could get as much as $10,000 wagered on that game,″ owner Branch Mahaffey said.

Super Sunday ranks among the busiest days of the year for the converted oil-supply vessel, but it sails twice daily from a restaurant near Port Everglades and takes bets on all kinds of games.

That means blackjack, roulette, craps and poker. It also means football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Wagers can be made on all major professional and college sporting events during the ship’s five-hour cruises.

Len Stratford, who supervises the sports operation, takes bets at a counter in a corner near the stern. Behind him are five white boards with games and point spreads listed in colored markers.

Aside from parimutuel wagering, sports betting is illegal everywhere but Nevada, but the government has no jurisdiction in international waters. Professional leagues and the NCAA frown on gambling because of concerns about point-shaving.

``I’ve never seen any of the Miami Dolphins or Miami Heat on here,″ Mahaffey said.

A dozen other Florida-based ships in the cruise-to-nowhere business also offer sports wagering up and down both coasts, from Marco Island to Port Richey and from Jacksonville to Key Largo.

But the Vegas Express was the first, and its operation is the largest.

``The Vegas Express put a great deal of emphasis on the sports book,″ said Jean Walder, executive director of the Florida Day Cruise Association. ``It has become an absolute standard in the industry.″

The Vegas Express, which went into business in September 1994, is twice as long as a basketball court and holds 450 passengers, not including crew, on three levels. The ship likely will be full Sunday, but the average cruise attracts 200 passengers.

Betting on a typical game totals $1,000 to $2,000 _ pocket change by Las Vegas standards. And sports accounts for only 5 percent of the betting aboard the ship. Most of the passengers are tourists or retirees, not professional gamblers, and 60 percent of the ship’s revenue comes from its 185 slot machines.

But a 10-percent takeout makes sports betting profitable for the Vegas Express, and there’s little business risk.

``We don’t get that many big gamblers,″ Mahaffey said. ``We limit ourselves. Sometimes we’ll quit taking bets on a particular game. The most we’d lose on any game is $2,000.″

A bettor can wager from $20 to $2,200 on each game. Lines are posted every Wednesday, with up to 100 games listed. Advance betting on major events also is offered.

``We take anything they can bet in Vegas,″ Mahaffey said.

Each opening point spread is taken from Las Vegas, but the ship may adjust its line so passengers are betting similar amounts of money on both teams. Ship satellites allow passengers to track the progress of games on four large televisions.

Winnings must be collected within 90 days in international waters, which sometimes forces bettors to make two trips. Losers are welcome to make a second trip, too.